Slamming down the phone and shoving a wayward strand of hair from her face, the woman in a pristine lab coat glared at the man hunkered over a microscope at the far end of the worktable. “You don’t get it, do you? You just don’t get anything.”
Not immediately responding to his assistant’s outburst, Timothy John McCloud methodically jotted his observations in his notebook. Then, removing his reading glasses, he swung on his stool to cock an eyebrow at her. A V-shaped scar over the bridge of his nose would have created a permanent scowl if it hadn’t also nicked his eyebrow. The inquisitive arch that resulted lessened the impact of the frown.
“I just don’t get what?” he asked cautiously.
“This!” Leona pointed an accusing finger at the stack of cardboard boxes against the wall of the tiny storefront office. “Burn them, and save yourself the grief.”
Another of those persistent idiots in the Defense Department must have been on the phone, TJ concluded. Problem solved, he returned to his microscope.
At least Leona had learned to keep the bastards off his back. Tearing the phone off the wall the last time they’d hounded him hadn’t been his finest hour, but it had apparently impressed his assistant enough so that she now screened his calls.
“What about us? Are those damned boxes more important than our future?” She ripped off her white lab coat and shook it at him to catch his attention.
Reaching for another slide, TJ hoped he’d misunderstood Leona’s histrionics. “There is no us,” he clarified, just in case. “You’re an employee. I’m the company. If anything happens, I’m responsible.” He chose the more generous interpretation of her declaration. Just because he was on the brink of self-destruction didn’t mean he needed to drag any idealistic innocents down with him.
“What about last night?” she demanded. “How can you say there is no us?”
TJ rubbed his forehead. Taking Leona out for coffee a few times probably had been a mistake. He always misunderstood the direction of the female mind. He’d thought they’d had a strictly professional relationship. But letting her ramble on about her dreams of a nonexistent future might have led her to believe differently. And maybe he shouldn’t have kissed her last night when she’d thrown her arms around him. In hindsight, that had been a stupid move on his part, although at the time, it had been a satisfactory distraction.
Given his current state of repressed desperation, though, it was a miracle he hadn’t jumped her bones and accepted the consequences later.
He’d had a lucky escape, and he’d like to keep it that way. On his best day, he didn’t have the correct attention span to suit women, nor the kind of settled lifestyle they expected. Now that his life had sunk to a new nadir, he didn’t need the additional hassle of second-guessing a woman’s wants.
TJ started to run his fingers through his hair and knocked his glasses askew in the process. Mentally cursing, he tried to refocus on the skeletal fragment on the slide in front of him.
“Are you even listening, TJ?” Leona cried. “We could have a good thing here. Doesn’t that matter to you? Just burn the damned boxes and get on with life.”
An invisible noose constricted his breathing as TJ thought of the of papers in those boxes—papers that should have been shredded months ago. If he believed media hysterics, those boxes had the power to erase all the good he and dozens of others had thought they’d accomplished in these last few years.
He didn’t want to believe the media accusations that the family friend who had launched his career had profited from the crimes of war criminals. He should trust Martin, shred the box contents as he’d been ordered to do, and let the hysteria die of its own accord.
But destroying potential evidence went against everything for which he lived.
On the other hand, opening those boxes meant passing judgment on his mentor. He’d done that once to a friend, with spectacularly disastrous results.
TJ liked his career. Forensic anthropology might not be an exciting vocation to some, but studying human remains for judicial evidence suited his methodical, detail-oriented mindset, with the added benefit of fulfilling his craving for justice. He didn’t want his career going down in flames for concealing a criminal, or for consorting with one.
TJ couldn’t remember ever panicking during the years of traipsing the war zones of Eastern Europe and Africa, but something dark and ugly had taken root the day he’d returned home to open the newspapers—and realized what the notebooks in those boxes could contain.
“Look, just burn the junk, all right?” Angrily, Leona wadded up her lab coat. “No more threatening phone calls. No more hiding out in this backwater to avoid journalists. You’re a brilliant scientist with a staggering reputation. You can work anywhere, demand any price. Why destroy your career for a battle that’s already lost?”
Excellent question. He never hired dumb assistants.
TJ carefully annotated his slide label and didn’t look up. “I don’t betray friends.” He dropped the slide into its box and closed the cover. “I’m a private consultant, not an employee, so empty Defense Department threats can’t intimidate me. Are you taking an early lunch?”
Leona flung her lab coat at him. Scarcely moving a muscle, TJ let the coat slide off his shoulder, and turned toward the next plastic specimen bag on the table.
“You’re only a private consultant as long as someone will hire you,” she yelled. “Who the hell will hire you if the entire world thinks you aided and abetted a criminal?”
A very real possibility given the incendiary potential of the boxes. Of course, if he turned them over to the Defense Department, their contents could disappear and never be heard of again. The colonel’s mission in the Mid-east had been a sensitive one, and the military protected their own.
TJ had spent his career uncovering crimes of war. He didn’t want to be party to a cover-up now.
He didn’t want to turn the colonel over to the rabid frenzy of media hounds either.
Dropping out of sight here in the middle of nowhere was a desperate attempt to salvage his mental health— before choosing between friendship and potential career suicide. Destroy the boxes or open them? He lost either way.
“I can pay your wages for the project regardless of my ultimate decision.” Using tweezers, TJ removed a single golden hair from the bag and arranged it on a fresh slide. He ignored the puddle of white cloth at his feet. His focus on his work to the exclusion of all else had incited worse reactions than flying lab coats. If she reached for the other microscope, he’d duck.
“It isn’t my damned wages that concern me,” she shouted. “My father could give us a whole lab, if we liked. We could have a future together. Why can’t you see that?”
If he was a man who laughed, he would, but he wasn’t. He didn’t find much to laugh about these days, although he did see a certain sardonic humor in discussing a future with a man without a life. Years of travel hadn’t left him with much time for anything but work. “The only future I see right now is solving the mystery of these bones. That’s what I hired you for.”
Her lab notebook clipped him on the ear, bounced off his shoulder, and struck the human skeleton hanging from a rack behind him, rattling its bones. TJ sighed and caught the skeleton stand before it toppled.
“Take your damned bones to bed with you then. That’s the only relationship you’ll ever know.” Leona stalked out of the shabby inner office, disappearing into the even shabbier outer one.
TJ heard the front door slam behind her. With a sigh of regret, he rubbed at the tarnish on the brass canister he’d dug from the excavation site. He wished life could be as simple as it had been in the pre-Civil War days when the canister had been molded: no telephones, no computers, and women who believed men knew what they were doing.
As he leaned over to retrieve the scattered pages of the notebook, a gentle clapping broke the silence.
TJ’s head jerked up, almost slamming into the counter. Bent over, he could only see a shapely ankle accented by red high-heeled mules. Straightening slowly, he absorbed the magnificent apparition magically appearing in his doorway.
The high heels emphasized the curving perfection of long tanned legs, capped by a tight red miniskirt. Eyes popping, TJ looked higher, to a breathtaking figure that could have graced the pages of Playboy. Aware of his gaze, the genie posed seductively against the institutional green of his office door.
Damn, was he hallucinating? He should have heard her enter.
Hell, her looks should have screamed her entrance. That red spandex top revealed far more than it concealed, even with the silky transparent shirt thrown over it. Removing his glasses, TJ massaged the bridge of his nose.
He was surprised at himself—he never noticed what women wore. Had a covey of angels alighted, he might have noticed they wore a lot of white before returning to work. His ex-fiancée had pointed that out to him on numerous occasions.
TJ raised his gaze from the intruder’s distracting body, only to be captured by more fascinating phenomena. Whipped-cream-and-lemon-pie-colored curls bobbed from an impossible heap atop a tan face of delicate angles. Slanted green eyes watched him with amusement as she crossed her arms under her bounteous bosom. Her taunting smile and turned-up nose alone could have halted a rampaging grizzly and morphed it into a drooling teddy bear. The rest of her could roll dead men in their graves and kill live ones in the sheer ecstasy of testosterone overdose.
Why did she look familiar? Startled at that reaction, TJ absently polished his glasses while applying his analytical mind to the puzzle.
“I applaud your ability to defy temptation,” she purred, swiveling her hips as she moved toward him, watching him through eyes gleaming with interest.
Where had he seen her before? She was beautiful enough to be a movie starlet, but he didn’t watch movies, so that couldn’t be the answer. TJ couldn’t picture her in the army fatigues worn by most of the women he’d met lately, and she didn’t look as if she possessed the brains to be on any university staff he knew.
“I don’t have time for this,” he said aloud, returning his reading glasses to his nose. “Tourist information is down the street.” TJ swung around on his stool, presenting her with his back.
“Did all that youthful energy bouncing out of here wear you out?” she asked with a hint of humor. This close, her subtle cologne drifted temptingly between the sharper odors of ammonia and formaldehyde.
Awareness crept across TJ’s skin, irritating him far more than Leona’s senseless departure. “This is a private office. I’ll thank you to state your business or depart.”
Common sense told him his libido had taken an inconvenient detour. If he didn’t have the patience to figure out the wayward path of an intelligent female mind like Leona’s, he’d never calculate the logic of the blond genie glittering behind him. Ergo, there was no point in carrying his annoying fascination any further.
“Timid Timothy,” she teased. “That much hasn’t changed.”
She ran a fingernail down his lab coat, and the part of him with no brain reacted instantly. He broke his pencil lead and cursed.
She laughed, a low, knowing chuckle. “Want a hint? Or shall I just fling something at you and flounce out like the last one?”
“Flounce, please,” he answered mildly. “Without throwing anything breakable, if you could arrange it.”
The sexy vibration of her laugh shot straight to his groin.
“I see the years have taught you flattery and charm,” she teased. “I suppose there have been so many women in your life, they all look alike to you these days.”
The second statement was as much mockery as the first, although TJ wasn’t certain she knew it. He was certifiably charmless, and the only women in his life threw things at him.
Pointed jabs at open wounds didn’t improve his humor. “The women I know have more brains than boobs, so their appearance is irrelevant,” he replied, reaching for another slide.
“Oh, I’ll get even with you for that one, Tim, just see if I don’t.” Her velvet voice slid into a dangerous undertone.
He couldn’t concentrate on the slide under his microscope while inhaling an exotic scent with more mind-bending effect than pure opium. Was there something familiar in that warning? “If you’re done threatening me, close the door behind you as you leave.”
The air almost buzzed with her reaction, but her reply was bright and cheerful. “Your wish is my command, TJ.”
He sensed more than heard her quiet departure. He couldn’t know her, he swore. He’d certainly remember anyone that stunningly sexy if he’d met them. Stunning and sexy were not words to describe the intense, intelligent women he’d dated these last years. He looked for brains in women so he could converse with them on an equal level.
He shouldn’t have insulted her, though. Obviously, his temper had reached the snapping point, and he’d better resolve his problems soon, before his mind snapped with it.
He hadn’t been called Timid Tim since grammar school, and only his brothers lived to tell of it. Who the hell was she?